The American Soldier
Der Amerikanische Soldat
1970 — 80 minutes, black & white, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Suspense
Revisionist film noir about a Viet Nam vet, returned to Germany, who becomes a paid assassin for renegade cops.
The American Soldier (1970), Fassbinder's revisionist homage to gangster movies and film noir, is alternately playful and deeply disturbing.
It tells the story of Ricky (Karl Scheydt), a professional killer, who returns to his German hometown from America, where he fought for the US in Viet Nam. Three renegade detectives, unknown to their chief, hire Ricky to kill the people behind a crime wave which, humiliatingly, the police have been unable to stop. During his mission, Ricky visits family, meets up with friends, and drops by old haunts, all the while murdering his targets with stone-cold resolve. After finishing his kills, including a final one caused by the lead detective's jealousy, Ricky finds himself in a shootout with his illicit employers. Some people consider the climax the most startling of any Fassbinder picture.
What struck me most about The American Soldier was its afterimage. Although it seemed glacially paced on a first viewing, in subsequent days I found myself thinking about its haunting images many times. At times, it feels almost like a ghost story, with phantoms drifting through a literally shadowy world. Fassbinder and his frequent cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann bring an effectively creepy look to the film, shot on a limited budget in stark, high-contrast black and white.
Watching it a second time, I saw more clearly how Fassbinder brings out the emotional subtext which underlies the film noir tradition, and which gives The American Soldier much of its power.
Fassbinder considered himself a "genre filmmaker," whether he uses a genre's unique characteristics for dramatic force, or plays the iconoclast and pulls it apart to expose its underlying assumptions. His later penchant for romanatic melodrama is well known; but he also made a Western (Whity), science fiction (World on a Wire), as well as comedies, dramas, and suspense pictures. The American Soldier follows Fassbinder's two earlier thrillers, Love is Colder Than Death (1969; his first film) and Gods of the Plague (1970) in a kind of loose trilogy. It contains some of the earlier characters but now played by different actors (such as Magdalena Fuller, who is here played by Katrin Schaake instead of Ingrid Caven). In other instances, characters seem a continuation of their earlier incarnation, such as the detective played by Jan George, who also appeared in Gods of the Plague. This third film goes so far as to "resurrect" the character of Franz Walsch (played by Fassbinder himself in the first picture, but by Harry Baer in the second, which ends with Franz's funeral, and now again by Fassbinder in this film). But it is foremost an homage to the American gangster movies and films noir which always fascinated Fassbinder.
There are also traces of his early passion for Jean-Luc Godard, with some of the car scenes reminiscent of similar moments in Breathless (1960), which was itself a playful deconstruction and reimagining of American thrillers. Fassbinder also adopts Godard's ironic style for staging the murders as seen in such films as Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Week End (1967) with victims crumpling as if they were children playacting at death.
In one of The American Soldier's strangest and funniest scenes, future filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta (1982's Marianne and Juliane, 1986's Rosa Luxemburg) plays a suicidal hotel maid who sits on a bed next to the naked Ricky and his girlfriend of the moment and recounts, at great length, the tale of how an elderly German woman married a young Turkish man. This, of course, is the essential plot of what Fassbinder would soon transform into one of his masterpieces, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). (If the durable story sounds even more familiar than that, it is because it looks back to Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) and ahead to Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven (2002).)
Music plays a crucial role in The American Soldier, and there is a motif repeated dozens of times which worms its way into your head. Its first phrase recalls the "parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme" melody of Simon & Garfunkle's song, then it modulates into a kicky little rock riff which goes nowhere. Fassbinder also turned songwriter on this film, writing with his frequent composer Peer Raben the songs "With My Tears" (sung by Ingrid Caven briefly Mrs. Rainer Werner Fassbinder in a dive) and "So Much Tenderness" (performed by Günther Kaufmann). In Ricky's powerful introductory scene, driving in a car with a call girl (played by Fassbinder regular Irm Hermann), he talks about the lyric to "So Much Tenderness," criticizing its mistake that "the world is round," when in fact, he says, "The world is a sphere." This provides a sort of thematic motto for the film, in which Fassbinder both "spherizes" fleshes out traditional, even stereotypical, film noir characters while, at other times, he flattens them to the point of absurdity.
Also tongue-in-cheek, Fassbinder names several of his denizens after favorite directors, all of whom created classics of suspense cinema: (Sam) Fuller, (F.W.) Murnau, (Fritz) Lang, and (Raoul) Walsh. Fassbinder himself returns in a cameo to the role of Franz Walsch, which was central to his two earlier Films Noir.
Fassbinder also frequently used the pseudonym of "Franz Walsch" throughout his career, especially for his work as editor. In a tongue-in-cheek moment in this film he has his antihero, Ricky, spell out and tacitly gloss the name to a telephone operator, in a parade of political and cinematic references (which serve as a rough index to where Fassbinder's head was at in those days): "W as in war, A as in Alamo, L as in Lenin, S as in science fiction, C as in crime, and H as in Hell."
When it came time to name his principal female character, the hapless call girl Rosa von Praunheim (played by Elga Sorbas) whose affections shift from the lead detective to Ricky Fassbinder turned not to film noir but to his friend, filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim. Rosa (born Holger Mischwitki), who adopted a gender-bending name, was the most outspoken champion of gay rights among the German New Wave directors; his films include It is Not the Homosexual Who is Perverted, But the Situation in Which He Lives (1970) and A Virus Knows No Morals (1986).
Visually and dramatically, however, Fassbinder focuses on the classics of film noir. Primarily, Ricky brings to mind the amoral, unstoppable antiheroes of Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street (1953) and especially Robert Aldrich's stunning Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Karl Scheydt plays Ricky at such a perfectly hard-boiled pitch that you constantly wonder when he is going to crack. (On the level of in-joke, Fassbinder gives Ricky the last name of von Rezzori; in Rio das Mortes, actress Hanna Axmann-Rezzori plays the patroness, Mrs. Martinsen, who bankrolls the expedition to the titular location.)
Perhaps The American Soldier's most intriguing element is Ricky's and his unnamed brother's (actor Kurt Raab, who specialized in playing Fassbinder's most offbeat characters) relationship with their enigmatic mother (Eva Ingeborg Scholz). Her half-smiles suggest volumes of dark family mysteries, and recall the twisted oedipal streak in Raoul Walsh's White Heat (1949). The brother makes us think of the debonair psychopath Bruno (Robert Walker) in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951); and his intense feelings for Ricky remind us of such homoerotic bonds in film noir as the one between the Glenn Ford and George Macready characters in Charles Vidor's Gilda (1946).
But too often The American Soldier seems to beg for "footnoting" putting it in the context of the many extraordinary films which it quotes or revamps rather than presenting an immediate experience. (The final scene is an unforgettable exception.) Of course, Fassbinder often wants to distance the viewer from his films, forcing us as do Brecht and Godard to confront the picture's, and hence our own, social and psychological assumptions. But in this film, Fassbinder's sources and his strikingly original vision do not come together as effectively as in his best work.
The most interesting level of The American Soldier is subtextual, where Fassbinder exposes some of the darker, or at least more frustrated, sexual undercurrents of film noir. It is always a temptation to search for autobiographical readings of Fassbinder films, especially when same-sex themes Fassbinder was openly gay call out for attention or, in the case of this film's final scene, scream for it.
[SPOILER ALERT — specifics about the film's climax are revealed below.]
For a full five minutes, in a picture which runs only 80 minutes, we have a static camera in long shot showing us Ricky's brother humping his brother's corpse, while their mother in a funereal black dress and the detectives who hired Ricky look on in unmoving silence. Fassbinder effectively uses such tableau effects, a staple of his stage work, in several other films (including Katzelmacher and The Merchant of Four Seasons). But here, the effect is overwhelming, as we like the other characters watch transfixed. The brothers are fully clothed, but the transgressive sexual nature of the scene is unmistakable; and it becomes exponentially more excruciating as the scene literally grinds on and on and on.
But unlike the release which we experience at the end of, say, White Heat (with James Cagney on top of that exploding oil tank) or Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973; where the homoerotic tension is purged when the protagonists' car hits a spuming fire hydrant), Fassbinder's film leaves us feeling even more trapped and frustrated than before, a fitting if profoundly uncomfortable end to his revisionist film noir, and to his exploration of latent homoeroticism in the astonishing trilogy which began with Love is Colder Than Death and Gods of the Plague, and which ends hauntingly with this film.
Connecting The American Soldier's climax with this picture's earlier, sometimes even playful, tone gave it enormous, and deeply disturbing, emotional resonance. This is one of Fassbinder's most intriguing early works, and it points the way to his even greater films in the years ahead.
- Transfer made from a restored print, using the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33
- Choice of a new Dolby 5.1 soundtrack or the original mono
- Subtitle control
- Film divided into 16 chapters
- Filmographies for Fassbinder and the lead actors
- Web links
- Booklet Thomas Elsaesser's essay, "The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder: A Cinema of Vicious Circles"
- NOTE: The DVD cover shows Jan George, who co-stars as the leader of the corrupt detectives, NOT Karl Scheydt who plays Ricky, the titular "American Soldier."
- $24.98 suggested retail
Reviewed December 7, 2002
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